This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the four recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.
The book of Exodus is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses, and describes his life and actions…and God’s actions through him.
The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.
This book describes God choosing a people group, revealing Himself to them in power and holiness, contracting with them to be His chosen people, and leading them to the homeland promised to their ancestors. It includes all eight of the major themes presented in this article series.
Chapter 1 begins with a dramatic change of fortunes from the end of Genesis. The family of Joseph — hero of the famine, second in command to Pharaoh — had gone from being honored and welcomed to being enslaved. A new pharaoh was in power, and he couldn’t care less about Joseph. He just saw the family’s rapid growth, feared this influx of “foreigners”, and decided to get rid of them. Harsh treatment didn’t work, though. So his next step was to have the midwives kill all the baby boys as they were first born. The midwives circumvented that command, saying that the babies were born so quickly that they didn’t have time to get there to do pharaoh’s bidding. He changed the command to “throw all the baby boys into the river”, and expanded from the midwives to include all of his people in the command.
Chapter 2 covers a lot of territory in just 25 verses: all of Moses’ life from his birth up until just before God called him to deliver the Israelites from their slavery. Verses 1-10 describe baby Moses being placed in a basket in the river, then found and raised by the pharaoh’s daughter. Verses 11-15 tell of him killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave, then fleeing the country. Verses 16-22 show him staying in the land of Midian and marrying a woman there. Finally, in verses 23-25, God decided it was time for the real action to start.
Chapter 3 is God’s call to Moses, getting his attention via the burning bush that was never burned up. The time had come for God to act on His covenant with Abraham, and bring his descendants from Egypt back to Canaan. At first, God introduced Himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” But later, when Moses asked His name, God replied with one of the holiest statements in history:
God said to Moses, “ I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14
God predicted that the freed people would worship Him on the very mountain where Moses was standing, Mt. Horeb…meaning “mountain of God” and also known as Mt. Sinai. He also predicted that the pharaoh would not want to let the people go, and that it would take miraculous intervention. A third prediction was that the Egyptian people would provide the Hebrews with abundant resources of gold, silver, and other goods as they left.
Chapter 4 starts with Moses looking for a way out of the assignment:
- What if they don’t believe me?
- Do these signs: turn a staff into a snake and back; make your hand have leprosy and then be healed; turn water into blood.
- But I don’t speak eloquently.
- Who made men’s mouths and gave them speech? I’ll be with you.
- Please send someone else!
- Team up with your brother Aaron. He can speak for you.
Moses gave in, and headed back toward Egypt. He got into trouble as soon as he started, though. He did not circumcise his son as required by the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). God was prepared to kill him for that neglect, but Moses’ wife Zipporah quickly performed the ceremony and Moses was spared. Moses and Aaron spoke to the Hebrew people, who believed their words. The people worshipped God, grateful that He had remembered them and come to their rescue.
Chapters 5 and 6 show the rescue with a rocky start. Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people go for three days to worship in the wilderness. Pharaoh responded by not only refusing the request, but also increasing their workload. They now had to make the same quota of bricks per day without being given the raw material (straw) that was needed. They had to both find the straw and continue to make the bricks. The people were not pleased; Moses complained to God; God promised that He would keep His word and sent Moses back to Pharaoh again.
The last half of chapter 6 backtracks to give the genealogy of Moses and Aaron, and the other descendants of Jacob’s son Levi. This Levite clan was to become specially set aside for temple service later on.
Chapters 7 through 10 describe the miracles and plagues that God did in an escalating demonstration of His power. None of them persuaded Pharaoh to relent and let the people go, however. These miracles and plagues are listed below. Note that each plague was a deliberate jab at an Egyptian god or goddess in their area of supposed power 1.
- Staff turned into snake. Pharaoh’s magicians were able to imitate this, but Aaron’s snake swallowed theirs.
- Nile river water into blood. Pharaoh’s magicians mimicked this one, also.
- Jab at: Hapi, the water-bearing god of the Nile
- An invasion of frogs. The magicians again copied this. But, still, it persuaded Pharaoh to promise to let the people go “tomorrow” (a promise that he reneged).
- Jab at: Heket, the fertility goddess with the head of a frog
- An invasion of gnats. The magicians couldn’t match this one. Still, stubborn Pharaoh.
- Jab at: Heb, the god of earth (including the dust from which the gnats came)
- Next invasion: flies. This time, Pharaoh said “Why do you have to go into the wilderness? Just worship here at home.” No dice. “OK, just don’t go far.” Then he reneged again.
- Jab at: Khepri, the god of creation with the head of a fly
- A plague that killed livestock (only that of Egyptians; Hebrew livestock was not touched). Still, stubborn Pharaoh.
- Jab at: Hathor, the goddess of protection; also Apis, the bull god
- A plague of boils on the Egyptian people. Still, stubborn Pharaoh.
- Isis, the goddess of medicine and peace; also Sekhmet, the goddess of epidemics
- A plague of hail that ruined crops and killed livestock. However, God gave warning so those who would heed it could get livestock under shelter. Some did; some did not. Again, a promise from Pharaoh, and again, he reneged.
- Jab at: Nut, the goddess of the sky; also Seth, god of storms and Shu, god of atmosphere
- Note: As He was giving the warning, here is what God said to Pharaoh:
- “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.“
- An invasion of locusts. This time, Pharaoh attempted to forestall it by suggesting that only the Hebrew men go away to worship, leaving the women, children, and livestock behind. When that offer was refused, he drove Moses and Aaron out of the room. So, here come the locusts!
- Jab at: Seth (God of storms) again; also Siris, god of crops and Serapia, protector of crops
- A plague of darkness for three days “They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the sons of Israel had light in their dwellings.“. Pharaoh raised he offer: He would let the people go but not the livestock. Nope, he got darkness.
- Jab at: Ra, the sun god and the most worshipped of them all
- End result: Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Beware, do not see my face again, for in the day you see my face you shall die!” Moses said, “You are right; I shall never see your face again!”
Passover and Exodus
The stage was set for chapters 11 through 13: the plague of the firstborn, the Passover, and the Exodus.
In chapter 11, God said “OK, one last plague: The firstborn son of every family in Egypt will die.” Unlike the Pharaoh, his officials and all the Egyptian people were impressed with Moses and favorably inclined toward the Hebrews. The officials would end up encouraging the Hebrews to leave, and the people would give gifts of silver and gold to see them off.
Chapters 12 and 13 inaugurate the new beginning of the Jewish year, the Passover meal, the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the mandate that all firstborn males are dedicated to God 2. The meal included a lamb whose blood was painted onto the door frames. The plague passed over those houses, and their firstborn was spared. All others died. The meal also included readiness to leave quickly: eaten in haste, fully dressed, with no time for bread to rise.
When all Egypt awoke in the middle of night to find not a family without a death, the Pharaoh finally said “Go on! Get out of here!” About 600,000 men, plus women and children, left after having spent 430 years in Egypt. God led the way, guiding them by a pillar of cloud during the day and of fire by night.
The Red Sea
Chapter 14 tells of the Israelites’ last encounter with the Pharaoh. He regretted his decision to let them go, and sent his army after them as they camped by the sea. The people were terrified: “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11-12) Moses’ response: “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today…The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14) The guiding pillar of cloud moved from in front of the Israelites to behind them, between them and the Egyptian army. All during the night, the Egyptians had darkness while the Israelites had light. That light showed a strong wind piling the water up on either side, clearing a dry path for them to walk to the other side of the sea. When the army followed, the walls of water collapsed, destroying it.
The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even Pharaoh’s entire army that had gone into the sea after them; not even one of them remained. But the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.Exodus 14:28-31
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians.
The first part of chapter 15 is a song by Moses and his sister Miriam, recounting the events and praising God for His majesty, power, love, and salvation.
The last of chapter 15 through the first of chapter 17 describe God’s provision for the physical needs of the people in the desert. Each time, they complained, and He came through for them. First, He provided clean water from a spring that was at first undrinkable. Then he provided meat and bread in the form of flocks of quail each evening and manna covering the ground each morning. Finally, He provided water again…from a rock!
The end of chapter 17 describes a battle. The Amalekites attacked the Israelites. The Israelites (led by Joshua from whom we will hear more later) retaliated in defense. From a hilltop above the battle, Moses held out the staff that God had used for so many miracles already. As long as the staff was held up — even when Moses needed assistance as his arms tired — the Israelites succeeded. This went on all day, with the battle finally ending that evening.
Chapter 18 is a lesson in delegation. Moses had sent his wife and their children back to her father, away from the chaos of the exodus. As the Israelites traveled back toward that area, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, brought the family and came to visit the camp. He saw Moses’ running himself ragged, trying to answer every question and mediate every dispute among the people. He advised Moses to spread the work, appointing capable men to act as judges at every level, from groups as small as ten up to groups of a thousand. Moses was to pass God’s word on to the judges, who would then settle issues among the people in their group. Only the most difficult cases needed to filter up to Moses for his decision.
Meeting with God
Chapter 19 happens about three months into the journey. The people have arrived back at Mt. Sinai, as God said they would when He first called Moses. God’s words to the people via Moses were:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.Exodus 19:4-6
The people agreed to God’s terms:
All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”Exodus 19:8
God had Moses prepare the people. For three days, they cleansed and consecrated themselves, getting ready to gather at the foot of the mountain while God descended to its peak. Moses and Aaron were allowed to go higher, but the others could not even touch the mountain itself. They were OK with that: They were terrified of the fire, smoke, and earthquake associated with God’s presence.
- No idols
- Fair treatment for servants
- Penalties for violence (including death penalty for certain crimes)
- Penalties for theft
- Penalties for sexual misconduct
- Death penalty for sorcery
- No oppression of widows or orphans
- Fairness in lending
- No withholding of offerings that belong to God
- Justice: True testimony, no favoritism, no bribes
- Sabbath rest: every 7th day for people and animals, every 7th year for the land
- Three major festivals:
- Unleavened Bread at the first of the year (anniversary of the exodus)
- Firstfruits at the beginning of the growing season
- Ingathering at harvest time
At the end of chapter 23, God promised to lead the people into their promised land, subduing the enemies there. He warned the Israelites not to associate with the Canaanites, or to follow any of their idol gods.
In chapter 24, the people agreed to obey all of these laws. Moses held a covenant ceremony, with leaders of the people joining him in worship (even getting a glimpse of God for themselves, without being killed for it). Then Moses left those leaders in charge while he went farther up the mountain for forty days while God gave him further instructions.
Tabernacle and Priesthood
In chapters 25 through 31, God gave Moses detailed instructions for the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. (A fuller description of the tabernacle is available in this article.) There were also directions for the priests’ clothing and for the exact conduct of the ceremonies to dedicate those priests to God’s service. Chapter 31 ends with a repeated instruction to observe the Sabbath, and finally with God himself permanently inscribing the law onto stone tablets.
The Golden Calf
Moses was gone, meeting with God, for a little over a month after the people said “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” As chapter 32 describes, the people … umm … didn’t. They went to Aaron, who had been left in charge, and changed their tune: “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1). Wonderful loyalty to the God of plagues, Passover, pillars of fire and cloud, the Red Sea, water, quail, and manna, and a fiery, smoky, shaking mountain – right? And Aaron, strong leader that he was, said “Yeah, sure, give me your gold jewelry and I’ll melt it down to make a nice calf idol for you, just like the ones the Egyptians had that protected them so well!” (paraphrase of Exodus 32:2-5)
God, of course, knew what was happening and told Moses to stay back as He destroyed the people. Moses interceded, asking God to remember His promises and not let other nations see Him bring disaster onto His own people. God relented, but Moses wasn’t so accommodating when he got back to camp and saw the mess they had made. He threw down the precious stone tablets, written by God’s own hand, breaking them into pieces as the people had broken their promise. Moses called on some of the still-loyal Levites to kill 3000 of the revelers. God killed more in a plague, but did not destroy the entire nation.
By the way, look below at Aaron’s laughable attempt to defend himself (my emphasis):
Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.Exodus 32:22-24
The calf idol just formed all by itself….hmmm. Regardless of verse 4 saying that Aaron took tools and fashioned that statue. Yeah, right!
Moses, Friend of God
Chapters 33 and 34 show the close relationship that Moses had with God. First, God told Moses to continue to lead the people on their journey to Canaan. Moses would go to a “tent of meeting” at a distance outside the camp. There, God would speak to him “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The people would stand at their own tents, watching and worshipping as the pillar of cloud stayed with Moses at the tent of meeting.
Moses wanted even more closeness. He asked God “Show me Your glory“. God answered that no one would be able to live if they saw His face directly. However, He would hide Moses in a cleft of a rock and cover him with His hand so that Moses could see only His back. Even at that, Moses’ face was so radiant after being that close to God that he had to wear a veil over it to keep from overwhelming the people when he returned.
Moses was on the mountain communing with God for another forty days. He returned with a replacement set of stone tablets, repeated commands to avoid idols and to observe the required festivals, and a promise:
Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you.Exodus 34:10
God with His People
Chapters 35-39 describe Moses passing along God’s specifications for the tabernacle and the priest’s accessories. The people cheerfully donated all of the costly materials needed, and built everything so that is passed Moses’ inspection. It became the new “tent of meeting”. Finally, chapter 40 describes the dedication ceremony for tabernacle, and the ordination of the priests.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.Exodus 40:34-38
Continue to Leviticus.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- The correlation to Egyptian gods and goddesses came from these resources: https://www.stat.rice.edu/~dobelman/Dinotech/10_Eqyptian_gods_10_Plagues.pdf, https://pasoroblespress.com/commentary/gods-supremacy-over-the-false-gods-of-egypt-displayed-thru-the-10-plagues-by-dr-gary-barker/ , and https://owlcation.com/humanities/Ten-Plagues-For-Ten-Gods.
- Firstborn male animals were to be sacrificed. Firstborn male children were redeemed for five shekels of silver. (Numbers 18:15-18)